Saturday, 4 August 2012

Oscar Pistorius ready for the London Olympics

I first blogged about the 25-years-old Oscar Pistorius four years ago. It was in May 2008 and I had heard about this disabled runner from South Africa whose ambition was to take part in the able-bodied Summer Olympics. At that time, the Beijing Olympics was just around the corner and Oscar Pistorius was working hard to qualify as the first paraplegic to participate in the Athletics competition.

How was Pistorius a paraplegic if that was indeed his ambition? Wouldn't it be a dichotomy for that to happen. For you see, Pistorius is an amputee. He was born without fibulae in his legs. It was a very rare medical condition. Without the fibula, it would be impossible for a person to walk, let alone run.

When Oscar was 11 months old, his parents had to make the difficult yet brave decision to amputate the young boy's legs below the knees. Now he was really disabled but it was the only way to give him the independence and make a life of his own in the future. As he grew, he was fitted with prosthetics that allowed him to grow up almost like a normal boy.

He played rugby, water polo and tennis during his schooldays, and even took part in Olympic wrestling. While undergoing rehabilitation after a serious rugby knee injury in 2003, he was introduced to running in January 2004 and since then, he never looked back. His favourite event today is the 400 metres race and he holds the world record time of 10.91 seconds for a 100-metre race for a disabled person. Mighty impressive!

So how does Pistorius do that? How does he run as a double amputee? The artificial limbs he uses are specially designed for people like him. They are a pair of J-shaped carbon-fibre prosthetics called the "Cheetah Flex-Foot" manufactured by an Icelandic company. With these fitted on, Oscar has basically become the fastest physically disabled runner in the world.

In 2007, the IAAF amended their regulations to prevent anyone with "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device" from taking part in able-bodied competitions as they considered the use of such prosthetics gave an unfair edge over normal athletes. At that time, Pistorius was already eyeing participation in the Beijing Olympics and he felt the ruling was unfair to him.

He took the IAAF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won an appeal against their amendment. But there was now another challenge for him. In order to qualify for the Olympics, he had to meet the IOC's qualifying marks. In this, he failed narrowly to achieve and thus was not selected to run by the South African Olympic Committee.

Nevertheless, he still could run in the 2008 Beijing Summer Paralympics. In the heats of the 100 metres, he set a Paralympic record with his time of 11.16 seconds. Later, he snatched gold in the 100 metres final in a time of 11.17 seconds. Days later, he won a second gold in the 200 metres event in a time of 21.67 seconds which was another Paralympic record. He completed a hat-trick by winning gold in the 400 metres in a world-record time of 47.49 seconds.

In the years since Beijing, Pistorius has gone on from strength to strength. He competed across a number of able-bodied races in 2011 and thrice, he posted times under 46 seconds in the 400 metres. After that, he set a personal best of 45.07 seconds in the 400 metres. And only last month, the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee finally handed him a place in the South Africa Olympic team.

He will thus become the first double amputee runner to take part in the Olympic Games. In London, he will compete in the 400 metres and the 4x400 metres relay races. This is a culmination of Pistorius' dreams and we can watch history unfolding today after 5.30pm local time here in Malaysia.

Oscar Pistorius is the finest reminder that astonishing physical accomplishment is not limited to only able-bodied people. It does not matter whether his artificial limbs provide his with an unfair advantage - in fact, the consensus seems to be that they may make him slower to start than able-bodied runners, thus canceling out any boost later - the point remains that being able to run on them is a major success for disability awareness. Regardless of his results in London, people around the world are set to see disabled persons in a different light.

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